I’ve begun reading the Goliard poetry. The commentary/introduction to the Goliards of the book I’m reading, Wine, Women and Song by John Addington Symonds irked me big time yesterday. It was all Renaissance this Renaissance that and you know, that bugs me. The way historians conventionally talk about the Renaissance you’d think all that just SPRANG out of nothing, that people lived their primitive, un-Roman, grubby little lives until, voilá, Leonardo. The book is around 150 years old, but that notion lingers on.
This historian compared Goliard poetry to Renaissance poetry and, IMO, that requires a time machine. If I were an intellectual living in the 1880s I’d be tempted to look more at INFLUENCE than comparison, but not this guy. I wanted to hit him over the head with a mallet. An example — at the end of a long and beautiful love poem, the benighted Mr. Symmonds writes:
It would surely be superfluous to point out the fluent elegance of this poem, or to dwell farther upon the astonishing fact that anything so purely Renaissance in tone should have been produced in the twelfth century.
I want to throttle him.
It’s funny to me how we name historical epochs (for our convenience) and then go on as if it were a real thing. “Hey, Leonardo, dude, here’s what I’m thinking. Renaissance? What’s your take on that? Like it? I think it’s a hell of a marketing stragedy for my badass ceiling and sculptures.”
“Mike, leave me alone. I’m writing secrets backwards.”
Yesterday I read this 12th century exhortation to love (remember, these are songs):
THE INVITATION TO YOUTH.
Take your pleasure, dance and play,
Each with other while ye may:
Youth is nimble, full of grace;
Age is lame, of tardy pace.
We the wars of love should wage,
Who are yet of tender age;
‘Neath the tents of Venus dwell
All the joys that youth loves well.
Young men kindle heart’s desire;
You may liken them to fire:
Old men frighten love away
With cold frost and dry decay.
For some reason, it reminded me of THIS (written during the Renaissance):
To the Virgins to Make Much of Time
Robert Herrick, 1591 – 1674
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
The Carmina Burana is filled with songs on this theme.
What IF (and this is a revolutionary thought) one thing leads to another?
But I’m not fair to Mr. Symmonds. His job was to open the minds of his readers to the notion that the Middle Ages were NOT a Dark Ages. He used the handholds he had to do this. I’m not exactly the audience for whom he was writing and I bet the audience he hoped to reach got his point which was, “Hey, these are really cool and beautiful songs kind of like all that stuff you like from the Renaissance!”
There are HUNDREDS of Goliard songs. I can’t imagine that they just lurked in dark taverns with iconoclastic young clerics. I’d bet they were EVERYWHERE these wandering scholars went in their, uh, wandering. I bet LOTS of non-wandering scholars — you know, just people? — knew them. I bet they had a larger influence than we know or the Church would not have wanted so badly to stem the tide of disillusioned drunken libidinous clerics wandering Europe, looking for teaching jobs and criticizing the hypocrisy of the church.
The OTHER egregious thing Mr. Symmonds does is compare some of the church-criticizing poetry to the Reformation. Again, that requires a time machine. BUT…WE look at the Reformation as a discrete event in history that sprang up spontaneously (simultaneous to the Renaissance?) but it wasn’t. Symmonds even opens his book with a quotation from Martin Luther. Again, for his Post-Reformation readers, that could strike a chord legitimizing the redemption of the “Dark Ages”.
The British art historian, Waldemar Januszczak, in his series for the BBC The Renaissance Unchained makes a good case (pretty much my case). His argument is that the Renaissance is Papist propaganda designed to combat the Reformation. When I began watching the series a year or so ago, and he made that point, I cheered. I’m not casting aspersions on so-called Renaissance art at all (it’s amazing), but those guys were PAID to paint and sculpt what they did to convey the message the Church wanted them to.
Do I like the songs/poems I’m reading? Not a lot, actually, but what’s behind them is very attractive. A whole world. Reading one spring/love/sex poem after another brought me to poor old Faust on Easter, bewailing his age and all the years he’d spent in study rather than gathering rosebuds.
That roses have thorns is, maybe, the wisdom of old age.